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Like myself, Gordon Laing is a former Editor of Personal Computer World magazine. Also like myself, Gordon has owned, used, borrowed or reviewed just about every personal computer to hit the shores of the UK, and a few that didn’t. Needless to say, Gordon knows his stuff when it comes to the history of personal computing, and I’m pretty sure that Digital Retro was as much a labour of love as it was a commercial venture for him.
Before I get onto content, let me say that this is a beautifully designed book, and it wouldn’t look out of place on even the most style conscious technophobe’s coffee table. Even my wife had a flick through the pages and said that she really liked it. That said, having lived with me for all these years, she’s probably not completely indicative of her gender - this is where I get a barrage of email from indignant female techno-junkies! Hey, it might be a cliché, but it does tend to be boys that obsess about computers and gadgets more than girls.
Anyway, as I was saying, the book is beautifully designed, with a huge selection of illustrations for each hardware landmark. The layout of the information is also very clear and well structured. The text is broken up into categories – there’s an introduction to the hardware, a rundown of the company history and the technical specifications. Gordon then throws in a “What happened next” section that explains how the product developed through its lifetime. Finally, there’s a “Did you know?” section where Gordon recounts interesting snippets of information surrounding the device.
Digital Retro covers the period from 1975 through to 1988, but some of my favourite hardware is conspicuous by its absence, like the NEC PC Engine. This was a groundbreaking machine that launched in 1987, although it never saw a European release and I had to import mine direct from Japan. It was the size of a couple of CD cases and knocked the competing products from Nintendo and Sega into a cocked hat, but I digress. Gordon's story starts with the MITS Altair 8800, a machine that cost almost $500 pre-built in 1975, and runs all the way through to the NeXT Cube which sold for a not insignificant $6,500 in 1988.
Flicking through the pages you’ll find some instantly recognisable boxes like the Apple II, the Atari VCS and the Sinclair ZX-81. But it’s the more obscure hardware that puts a smile on the face of those that are geeky enough to recognise it. Take the Oric-1 for example, a machine that most modern computer users will never have heard of, but I can still remember wandering into WH Smith, setting up a loop using the “Zap” sound effect and watching the sales staff trying to figure out how to make it stop.